Cast Iron Cookware 101: A Complete Primer for Beginners

Alright, I’ll confess: I have been in a manic cast iron cookware collection phase ever since we bought a three-piece set of CI pans when my then-girlfriend (now wife) and I first moved in. 

This addiction stemmed from a discussion about the old and beaten non-stick pan that my parents used to cook with at home. Its Teflon coating was already so worn off that its side corners were the only non-stick part of that non-stick pan. Of course, being the Filipino parents that they are, they didn’t want to replace it as they deem that it can still get the job done.

Okay, fair enough. But does it have to be that way?

So, my wife and I searched for more durable alternatives, and we eventually landed on cast iron cookware. We saw a video of someone explaining the intricacies of seasoning a cast iron pan and why this is better than a conventional non-stick pan. From there, our interests were piqued!

There is just something so fascinating about cast iron cookware that causes many people to gravitate toward them. It may be because of the amazing searing it imparts on food or the natural non-stick surface that feels immaculate to cook on. Me, I like the thought of having a solid piece of equipment that will be with me for years to come. It’s a strange object to hyper-fixate around. And, quite frankly, I want to bring you down this pit with me.

I made this primer for people who are currently stuck in the same “cast iron pan curiosity stage” that I found myself in a few years ago. This article will contain everything from the properties of cast iron, how they are made, its benefits and drawbacks, and usage best practices.

So, without further ado…

Chapter 1 – Cast Iron Cookware Basics

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What are cast iron cookware?

Cast iron cookware is any type of kitchen utensil that was made by pouring molten cast iron into a mold. They are valued for their durability, heat retention, versatility, and their cooking surface with a natural coating that easily releases food. 

This “coating” is called the seasoning. It is a thin but tough layer of carbonized oil formed through polymerization when the oil reaches a certain temperature for some time. The seasoning is applied after each use, which eventually builds into a nice and even non-stick coating that gets better with time.  Aside from that, the seasoning also gives the pan its classic black patina, which also acts as a protective layer against rust for the bare cast iron material underneath. 

Cast iron utensils come in different forms since they can be cast into almost any shape. The most common types of cast iron cookware include:

  • Skillet
  • Deep skillet
  • Griddle
  • Grill pan
  • Dutch oven
  • Braiser
  • Paella pan
  • Wok

There are also some types of cast iron cookware that come with unique shapes and purposes like the corn stick pan, aebleskiver pan, wedge pan, as well as bakeware.

While cast iron cookware typically comes in its traditional black patina, some are coated with a type of glass called porcelain enamel in place of seasoning. These do not have to be seasoned after each use and often come in many zany colors that turn them into statement pieces in your kitchen.

Moreover, they are durable with many extant pieces of vintage cast iron cookware which are still in use or are in storage waiting to be restored.

What are cast iron cookware made of?

Cast iron cookware is made of the relatively common and inexpensive gray cast iron variety. It is mostly made of iron (which should go without saying), along with carbon (2.5 – 4.2%), and silicon (1.0 – 3.0%) being the accepted range. It is further made up of trace amounts of manganese (0.5 – 1.0%), sulfur (0.02 – 0.25%), and phosphorous.(0.02 – 1.0%).

This material is not called “gray” just for the heck of it. If you strip a cast iron pan of all of its layers of seasoning, you will see that the pan is gray-colored, not black. This coloration is due to the graphite formed by its carbon content. The graphite also makes the iron softer yet more durable than its white iron counterpart, which makes it more easily manipulated by machine tools. 

How are cast iron cookware made?

In general, the manufacturing of cast iron cookware follows a four-step process. Here they are in order:

1. Casting

The “cast” in cast iron cookware came from the way it is manufactured. Once pig iron is melted in a furnace along with its other constituents, it is poured into a mold (also known as a cast) that will determine its shape once it hardens. 

Because of the high melting point of cast iron (1204°C or 2200°F), it can destroy reusable moldings that are made of metal.This is the reason why expendable sand castings are used for making cast iron cookware since sand has a higher melting point than iron (1700°C or 3090°F). After the melted iron cools and hardens, the sand casting is broken apart to reveal the metal core. The sand will then be collected and reused to create another mold for later.

2. Machining

Once the cookware has been released from its molding, it will undergo the machining process to cut it to the desired shape, size, and weight by selectively removing materials from the product. 

The most common imperfections that are removed from the cookware are the rough, excess metal bits that occur where the two halves of the sand casting meet. Moreover, imperfections in the molding may cause sharp metallic bits to protrude from the pan. These are ground down to ensure that the cookware is in its proper shape.

This step will also be where the machinist includes provisions for the nuts and bolts needed to fasten handles on the lids of dutch ovens.  

3. Finishing

The sand used for casting results in a gritty texture. That is why after achieving its desired shape, the quality of the cooking surface is further dialed in during the finishing process. 

Three types of finishings cast iron cookware enthusiasts should be aware of. They are:

  1. Tumbled – the cookware is put through a rotating tumbler that contains metal grits that will remove rough bits and edges. This results in a gritty and rough texture.
  2. Ground – the cooking surfaces are polished and ground by hand until a relatively smooth surface is achieved.
  3. Milled – a more aggressive version of grinding, wherein a machine removes large chunks off the surface to make it completely flat and smooth. This process is extremely rare for cookware.

Note: Odd-shaped cookware, like corn sticks, muffin pans, and aebleskiver pans are usually not ground or milled due to their shape. Most likely, they are only put through a tumbling machine.

It is a hotly debated subject whether a pan with a smooth surface is more non-stick than those with rough surfaces  Some companies, like Lodge, state that their products have rough surfaces by design to help oil adhere to the metal. They also added that the pan will become smoother over time as you build up the seasoning.

4. Seasoning

In the past, cast iron cookware came out of the factory unseasoned, and users had to season it at home on their own. This is not the case for modern cast iron pans. Most cast iron cookware in the market today comes pre-seasoned with at least one layer of seasoning as leaving them unseasoned for a time will make them susceptible to rusting during transport or when displayed in-store. This also makes them ready for cooking straight out of the box.

After the finishing process, the pans are applied with a thin layer of oil and inserted into a hot oven until it develops the black patina that we all know and love. The pans will now be ready for packing and shipping.

The seasoning varies depending on the brand. Some brands only do one layer, while others do three. The type of oil used for the seasoning also varies. I wouldn’t fuss about this much as you’ll be building a new layer of seasoning in time anyway, rendering the base pre-seasoning layer moot. 

5. Enameling (Optional)

Enameled cast iron cookware skips the seasoning process altogether and goes directly to the application of the enamel coating. 

After the finishing process, the bare cast iron implements are blasted with a base layer of enamel to protect them from rusting. From there, the implements are dried and heated in an oven to allow the enamel coating to harden. 

The second coating of enamel is applied to the implements to completely seal off any pores that expose the bare cast iron inside. Usually, white or cream-colored enamel is applied on the inside, while the outside of the pan is colored with a more striking color. Again, the enameled cookware will undergo drying and heating in an oven to allow the second layer to set. After bolting on the handle, the product is now ready for packing and shipping.

Chapter II – The Joys (and Sorrows) of Cooking With Cast Iron

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7 Advantages of Cooking With Cast Iron

A lot of people swear by the cooking advantage of cast iron. Here are some of the most common reasons that people love them.

1. Durable and can be turned into heirloom pieces

Cast iron is a dense and heavy material. This makes them nearly indestructible unless you try hard to break them. They are so durable that they often are treated as heirloom pieces, with many decades-old pieces being used consistently by different generations in a family. Better yet, they get better with age as the seasoning improves.

Apart from that, their construction makes for a fundamentally more durable product. Since they are just one chunk of solid metal cast into shape, most do not have bolted-on handles whose screws may come loose or corrode in time. The product also does not contain less durable materials like plastics and rubber that are likely to wear out sooner compared to the body of the pan.

With that said, they are not indestructible. They can be destroyed by holes caused by corrosion, cracks brought about by thermal shock and deformations due to overheating. So proper care is still needed to maintain 

2. Natural non-stick coating

Seasoning a cast iron pan properly will reward you with an even and slick coating that behaves like the Teflon coating on a non-stick pan. No harmful chemicals were used to produce this coating – it’s all made with a cooking oil of your choice and high heat. This coating takes time to build up, so it will be best to use your pan regularly.

What I like about these pans is that unlike those with artificial coatings, a cast iron pan won’t be ruined once its coating scratches or flakes off. Instead, it can be repaired back to its former glory by applying a fresh coat (or coats) of seasoning 

3. Great heat retention characteristics

Since cast iron is a dense material, it can retain heat far longer compared to other pans made from other materials. This trait has many practical applications when it comes to cooking. 

Better heat retention characteristics mean food can cook evenly as temperatures stay consistent while cooking, making cast iron cookware apt for slow cooking techniques like braising, roasting, and stewing. It also prevents dramatic temperature drops when more ingredients are added while cooking. 

Moreover, it ensures that your food is adequately warm upon serving. This is why cast iron pans are the main choice of material for sizzling plates.

4. Can handle high temperatures

Compared to other cookware materials, cast iron can tolerate higher levels of heat without deforming or being damaged. How high? One study shows that gray cast iron increases ductility (which increases the chances of deformations occurring) at 500°C – 770°C. This means that they can handle pretty much the highest temperature that your kitchen range or oven can throw at them.

Better still, its seasoning will not be damaged in any way when exposed to this heat the pan needs to be exposed to this heat for longer to properly develop the seasoning. In contrast, the Teflon coating on a non-stick pan typically reacts when exposed to high heat which releases harmful fumes that can have negative effects on humans. It also ruins the Teflon coating, thus rendering the pan useless and possibly toxic.

5. Versatile applications

As we’ve now established that cast iron pans are physically durable and can withstand higher temperatures, let’s get to its wide range of practical applications.

Due to their high-temperature threshold, cast iron pans are perfect for searing meats and veggies. This tolerance to high heat also makes them perfect for baking and roasting. It allows you to start in the range and finish in the often (or vice-versa) if the recipe calls for it.

Cast iron cookware can also be used for open-flame cooking. They are a constant companion of campers everywhere as they can handle the daily rigors of camp life without getting all banged up. People even place hot coals on the lids of cast iron dutch ovens (of the un-enameled kind) that mimic the broiler function of a kitchen oven.

6. Relatively inexpensive

While cast iron cookwares are certainly more expensive than your run-of-the-mill aluminum pans, they are relatively inexpensive compared to cookware made from carbon steel, stainless steel, copper, and ceramics. On top of that, they are also simple to manufacture, hence cookware made out of cast iron can be placed at a lower price point compared to those made from other materials.

Heck, my daily driver is a three-piece skillet set for PHP2,500 (~USD50)! It is a no-frills chunk of metal that gets the job done beautifully. The 10-inch model comes at around PHP1,000 (~USD20; similarly priced to Lodge’s 10.25-inch classic skillet), and from my cursory search on Amazon, it is the most affordable option compared to similarly-sized pans at the same price point:

Material (10-inch Pan)Price (at Low Price Point)
Carbon SteelUSD40
Aluminum (with Teflon)USD35
Stainless SteelUSD30
Cast IronUSD20

7. Can increase your dietary iron intake

If you want to increase your daily iron intake, cooking in a cast iron pan may help you meet your requirements. The idea is that individual atoms of iron will stick to food while they are cooking, which will then be taken in by your body during absorption.

A study has shown that there is a marked increase in iron content in food cooked in cast iron cookware. Note that more acidic foods have a higher propensity to absorb iron.

FoodIron Content (mg/100g – Raw)Iron Content (mg/100g – Cooked in Cast Iron)Change
Medium white sauce0.223.301400.00%
Spaghetti sauce0.615.77845.90%
Chili with meat0.986.27539.80%
Spaghetti sauce with meat0.713.58404.23%
Scrambled eggs1.494.76219.46%
Spanish rice0.872.25158.62%
Fried chicken0.881.89114.77%
Fried potatoes0.420.8090.48%
Green beans0.641.1884.38%
Fried egg1.923.4881.25%
Liver with onions3.103.8724.84%
Poached egg1.872.3224.06%

Moreover, food cooked in cast iron absorbed more iron compared to those that were cooked in other materials (aluminum, stainless steel, glass, and enamel all count as “non-iron” in the study). Here is the mean iron content of each treatment:

TreatmentIron (mg/100g)
Cooked in Iron Utensil2.99
Cooked in Non-iron Utensil1.88

With that said, switching to a cast iron pan for daily cooking should not be considered as a treatment for iron deficiency. 

7 Disadvantages of Cooking With Cast Iron

While I admit that I have a very big bias towards cast iron pans (the word “cult” is literally in my domain name), I am not that inundated with love to overlook its shortcomings. Here are a few gripes people have about cooking with cast iron cookware.

1. Can get a little heavy

A cast iron pan’s thickness and density is a double-edged sword: sure it makes the utensil pretty much indestructible at the hands of people, but it sure does make them heavy and unwieldy as well. Especially if they are laden with food, these cookwares can give you a mini forearm workout every time you walk the food from the stove to the table.

While you’ll certainly get used to the heavier weight in a week or two, some cooking techniques like sauteing and stir-frying may get more exhausting when done in a cast iron pan.

2. Their handles get hot

Since cast iron cookwares are a single piece of metal that is cast into shape, it means that every inch of that utensil can conduct heat. I learned this the hard way the first time I seasoned my pans right after purchasing them. Being used to non-stick pans with non-heat conducting plastic handles, I utilized pot holders sparingly. But after touching hot pan handles one too many times, pot holders and oven mitts have been part of my cooking ensemble ever since.

If you want to handle hot pans even without pot holders, you can buy silicone handle covers that do not conduct heat well. However, I’d still exercise caution by using a potholder anyway as I often get paranoid about the silicone handles slipping and revealing a tiny sliver of hot metal that can singe my skin when accidentally exposed.

3. Takes longer to reach optimal temperatures

While cast iron cookwares stay hot a lot longer than compared to other materials, it can take them significantly longer to reach the desired temperature. I preheat my pans on the stove for about ~5 minutes on medium to get their temperature going. 

Apart from the pan’s thickness and density, cast iron is not a poor conductor of heat. Measured by Watts per meter-Kelvin (W/mK), the thermal conductivity coefficient of cast iron is 55 W/mK. Here is how it stacks up against other metals commonly used for cookware.

MaterialThermal Conductivity (W/mK)
Cast Iron55
Carbon Steel45
Stainless Steel25

Cast iron performed better than both carbon steel and stainless steel. However, copper and aluminum have thermal conductivity scores that are leaps and bounds higher than that of cast iron.

While being a poor thermal conductor does play a significant factor in making cast iron in heat retention and thermal emissivity, it does make them/ unresponsive when quick temperature corrections are needed. 

4. Not the best at evenly distributing heat

Cast iron cookware has a reputation of having one of the best heat distribution attributes compared to other materials. However, the fact is quite the opposite.

Since cast iron is a poor conductor of heat (as highlighted in the table in the previous section), the temperature in certain parts of the pan that are farther from the source of heat will take longer to rise. This creates hotspots on the surface of the pan which can result in an uneven charring or browning of food. You can lessen the impact of this drawback by preheating your cast iron pan before use.

5. May be too high maintenance for some people

You’ve probably heard by now that the process of cleaning a cast iron pan is vastly different compared to non-cast iron cookware like aluminum, stainless steel, and copper. The full cleaning and seasoning guide will be written a few sections below, but in summary, this is how the process goes:

  • Wash 
  • Scrub
  • Towel dry
  • Heat dry
  • Apply oil
  • Wipe away excess oil
  • Store

Compare that to other types of cookware that can be washed just like how you would wash your typical dinnerware. 

With that said, and I’m acknowledging my bias here, I find the act of cleaning and seasoning my cast iron pans therapeutic. Besides, the thought of being rewarded with a practically non-stick pan in the coming years motivates me to season my cast iron implements well.

6. Not the best for stews and acidic food

A cast iron pan’s layer of seasoning is robust enough to handle being poked and prodded by metal utensils. However, this layer can be weakened by prolonged exposure to acids.

If you recall the earlier discussion about cast iron adding iron into your diet, you can see that the food that added the most iron is mostly acidic (applesauce, spaghetti sauce, chili with meat). That’s because the acids contained in these foods weakened the seasoning layer which caused more iron molecules to leach into the food.

While iron is a necessary part of our diets, it can impart a certain metallic taste that can be unpleasant for some. Of course, you can always get around this by cooking with enameled cast iron utensils.

7. Will rust when not properly maintained

Just like any other piece of iron, cast iron cookware will rust when exposed to the elements for some time.Rust protection is one of the primary reasons why cast iron pans are seasoned. However, even a well-seasoned pan will still rust if it was soaked for a long time or has been left to dry in the air without being wiped off or heated.

While I would not panic when I see some spots of rust on my pan as I know it can be removed quite easily, this could be off-putting for some people. It can also lead to widespread corrosion when not addressed early.

Chapter III – Cast Iron Usage and Care Guide

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Cast iron cookware has a reputation for being fickle and hard to maintain for most people who have not owned one yet. While you should certainly show a greater level of care for it compared to your other cookware, maintaining it is not all as hard as people make it out to be. To add more to that, you’ll find that it doesn’t take that much time at all once you get into the groove after weeks of owning a cast iron pan.

Here are some of the care and maintenance tasks you should do to keep your cast iron pan in tip-top shape:

First Time Usage Guide

As discussed earlier, most modern cast iron pans already come pre-seasoned, and hence are pretty much ready for use after a few steps:

  • Wash the pan with soap. This is to remove the waxy coating that some manufacturers apply on their pans to prevent rusting while at the store or the warehouse. You should also do this to clean off any dust and other residues on the surface of the pan.
  • Pat dry with a cloth. Never allow your pans to dry in the air as they can easily rust. Make sure to take off as much moisture as you can to help the next step run more smoothly.
  • Heat on a stovetop until bone dry. This step ensures that the pan is completely dry before any type of oil is applied to its surfaces.
  • Apply a coating of oil all over the pan. Make sure to wipe away excess oil (more on this later).
  • Preheat, then cook! Don’t forget to clean the pan afterward (again, more on this later)

Some people apply a new layer of seasoning before cooking. Heck, some even remove the pre-seasoning layer from the factory and then proceed to apply a new layer of seasoning using their preferred oil to ensure that their pan’s seasoning starts its life on the right foot. However, this is not strictly necessary.

Cast Iron Seasoning Guide

Ah yes, the all-important cast iron seasoning process. This task is usually done if your cast iron cookware is unseasoned or if rust has developed all over the pan. Moreover, the quality of the seasoning might deteriorate when not properly cared for, which necessitates stripping off the old layer and starting the seasoning off from scratch.

Assuming that you’re already working with a clean skillet, here are the steps to take to apply a layer of seasoning to your cast iron pan.

  • Apply a coating of oil all over the pan. Neutral flavored with smoke points higher than 205°C (400°F) like canola, soybean, grapeseed, and vegetable oil are preferred because they won’t burn during the seasoning process.
  • Wipe away excess oil. Laying on a thick layer of oil for seasoning may leave you with a sticky pan afterward. It is also more prone to flaking, later on, so be sure to wipe the excess oils off the pan with any old cloth you find lying around.
  • Heat the pan up to the oil’s smoke point. Here’s a cheat sheet of the smoke points of different types of cooking oils. You’ll want to hit the right temperature here – too low and it won’t polymerize properly; too high will cause the seasoning to flake off.

While applying just one layer will make your pan ready for use, you can repeat this process as many times as you desire if you want to build a thicker layer of seasoning from the get-go. 

There are no set requirements on how often you should season it throughout its life. However, most cast iron manufacturers recommend that you season your pan 2-3 times per year.

Instead of sticking to a strict quarterly or annual seasoning schedule, I prefer to look for visual cues to know when to reseason my cast iron cookware.

If you see one of the symptoms in the list below, then it’s time to re-season your pan. These visual cues are

  • Heavy rusting 
  • Peeling and flaking seasoning layer
  • Splotchy patina 
  • Sticky surface

However, don’t be quick to jump the gun either as some issues can be solved without the need for a full-on seasoning session. Light rusting on the surface of the pan can be solved by removing the rust with a scrubber and oiling the surface afterward. Meanwhile, an uneven patina can be resolved just by cooking and oiling your pan regularly.

Cast Iron Cleaning Guide

The process for cleaning cast iron cookware is quite different from other types of cookware. While the process is certainly a fair bit more complex than just scrubbing with a soapy sponge, it’s not too big of a hassle either. I can finish these tasks in 5 minutes, and I’m pretty sure you can get it done much faster than that (my wife calls my movements “inefficient”). Here are the steps in detail:

  • Rinse dirty pan in running water
  • Use a scrubber to remove stuck-on food 
  • Pat the pan dry with a dishtowel
  • Heat the pan on the burner until it is bone dry
  • Apply oil to the surfaces of the pan
  • Wipe away excess oil
  • Store in a dry place

Doing these steps diligently ensures that your pan won’t rust and its layers of seasoning will not deteriorate. Better yet, the seasoning will passively build up layers over time, further making it tougher and slicker.

For enameled cast iron, you can wash them with soap and a sponge as usual. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t use steel wool or a chainmail scrubber as these could damage the enamel coating.

Cast Iron Storage Guide

While cast iron pans can be put away the way most other types of cookware are stored, there are best practices you should keep in mind if you want to prevent them from rusting or from damaging the seasoning. Here are some ideas and best practices when it comes to storing cast iron cookware.

  • Always oil your pan before storing. Yeah, I think this has already been established at this point.
  • Never let them air dry. Iron + moisture + oxygen is never a good idea.
  • Choose a dry spot. Excess moisture should be avoided as much as possible. Below a cabinet
  • You can let them hang. Not only are they functional, but they also look aesthetically pleasing as well! Make sure that the hanger is durable enough to carry the weight of the pan, though.
  • Stacking them is an option. However, make sure to put a paper towel between each piece to minimize abrasions and damage to their surfaces.
  • Leave them in the oven. Ovens make a good storage space for cast iron pans as they are dry and unused most of the time. Just don’t forget to take them out before using the oven!

In general, the same tips apply to enameled cast iron cookware. However, they should not be stacked on top of each other (or nestled inside large dutch ovens) as this can damage the enamel and allow scratches and chips to develop. Moreover, some affordable pieces of enameled cookware(particularly double dutch ovens) are manufactured with their lips without enamel. This small sliver of exposed cast iron is susceptible to rusting, hence why oiling these parts are necessary for proper storage.

What utensils can be used for cast iron?

It is well known that it is a big no-no to use metal utensils on non-stick cookware as they can scratch and chip its Teflon coating. Thankfully, a cast iron pan’s seasoning is made of sterner stuff. Stainless steel, wood, and silicon are all fine materials to use with cast iron cookware. Heck, you can even carve and eat straight out of the pan without it forming any lasting damage. The only material that you should not use at all is plastic as it can easily melt when the pan is used to its full potential.

I have cast my vote; how about you?

If you finished this article from top to bottom, then I salute you. You’ve just listened to the 5000-word ramblings of a cast iron-addicted man. 

I think I’ve established well enough that I have a particular affection for cast iron pans, and I hope that this article made you appreciate this humble material and the weirdly vocal subculture that champions it. While I do acknowledge that the world of cast iron will not be for everyone, I strongly encourage you to give it a try and figure out if its pros outweigh its cons. 

If you’re still hungry for more info about cast iron and other cookware made from carbon steel, stainless steel, copper, and aluminum, then be sure to check out the rest of my blog!

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